By Mike Lillis and Justin Sink - 08/08/12 12:29 AM EDT
Mitt Romney on Tuesday launched an aggressive attack on President Obama’s economic platform, accusing the administration of “gutting” the bipartisan welfare reforms championed by President Clinton 16 years ago.
In a full-court press of campaign speeches, cable news interviews and a new television ad, Romney repeatedly invoked Clinton to hammer Obama for granting new flexibility to state welfare programs.
Team Obama hit back unusually hard: White House spokesman Jay Carney hammered Romney repeatedly in his daily briefing with reporters, and the reelection campaign hastily arranged a conference call, featuring former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, to debunk Romney’s claims.
Romney said the administration’s changes will allow recipients to collect government checks without working — or even looking for work — as the original law largely requires.
“They reformed welfare to encourage people to work. They did not want a culture of dependency to grow in America,” the GOP presidential hopeful said at a campaign stop outside Chicago, referring to Clinton and the Republican-led Congress that united to overhaul welfare in 1996.
“President Obama, in just the last few days, has tried to reverse that accomplishment,” Romney charged.
Carney blasted Romney’s attack as an “utter misrepresentation;” campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said the claims are “simply not true;” and Podesta condemned Romney’s message as “completely false.”
Podesta said he spoke with Clinton on Tuesday “and he completely agrees with my analysis of this.”
At issue is a memorandum issued last month by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) offering waivers under welfare — officially known as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF — to states that want “to test alternative and innovative strategies, policies and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families.”
The agency included a list of sample projects states might pursue, including those “that demonstrate attainment of superior employment outcomes if a state is held accountable for negotiated employment outcomes in lieu of participation rate requirements.”
That provision, Republicans charge, is an indication that Obama is willing to relax the requirement that most welfare recipients must be either employed or seeking work to remain in the program.
The initial HHS memo, however, said that the agency “will only consider approving waivers relating to the work participation requirements that make changes intended to lead to more effective means of meeting the work goals of TANF.”
“Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job,” says the narrator in Romney’s new television ad, which launched Tuesday. “They just send you your welfare check.”
Not true, says Obama’s team. In fact, the administration contends that no waivers will be granted unless states can show their waiver-based project will increase the number of working welfare recipients by at least 20 percent.
“No policy that waters down the work requirement will be considered,” James Kvaal, the Obama campaign’s policy director, said on the press call Tuesday afternoon.
Podesta piled on, saying that while he’s always glad to see others embrace Clinton’s policies, “I just wish they’d tell the truth when they do so.”
A similar debate over HHS’s waiver program has raged on Capitol Hill, where leading Republicans, including House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (Mich.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), the ranking member of the Finance Committee, joined forces last month to introduce legislation blocking any administrative move to waive the welfare-to-work thresholds.
“This is an insult to the American people,” Hatch said Tuesday in a statement released by the Romney campaign.
Complicating the Republicans’ argument, however, is the increase in state flexibility provided by the Obama plan, which is something Republicans have long supported in areas as diverse as healthcare, education and even welfare reform. Indeed, as governor of Massachusetts, Romney himself had pushed for more state power under the Clinton-era welfare law.
In a 2005 letter to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Romney joined a long list of Republican governors in backing legislation to reauthorize TANF, emphasizing that it must provide “states with the flexibility to manage their TANF programs and effectively serve low-income populations.”
“Increased waiver authority, allowable work activities, availability of partial work credit and the ability to coordinate state programs are all important aspects of moving recipients from welfare to work,” the Republicans wrote at the time.
The GOP’s push for greater state power hasn’t been lost on the White House and congressional Democrats, who have accused Romney of hypocrisy for attacking Obama’s plan for more state flexibility under TANF. Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said Tuesday that Romney is simply “not telling the truth.”
“By falsely attacking a policy that both he and his Republican allies have supported for years, Romney is once again flip-flopping on a position he took in Massachusetts, and demonstrating that he lacks the core strength and principles the nation needs in a president,” Smith said in an email.
Romney on Tuesday defended his previous position, telling Fox News that he was never asking for greater flexibility related to welfare’s work thresholds.
“I am all in favor of flexibility for states,” he said. “I am not in favor of reducing the work requirement.”
Democrats, however, weren’t buying the argument.
“Hypocrisy,” Carney said, “knows no bounds.”
Ed Gillespie, senior adviser to Romney, declined to say how much the campaign is spending on the new welfare ad, but suggested the buy will be significant.
“I can assure you that people are going to see this ad,” he said during a conference call with reporters.
— Amie Parnes contributed.